Back in the early days of the automobile, there was really a single man-made type of machine man himself controlled: boats. Sure, they had trains, but those ran on tracks, so little steering was needed, and they had carriages, but those turned simply by pulling the harness, itself attached to some sort of animal, to the left or right.
So for the creation of a device meant to steer a car, boats were the only true source of inspiration. Most of them changed direction through human-activated rudders, controlled by means of tillers, but there were also some steered through something called helm.
Early automobiles did use a tiller to steer, but by 1894, this method became more and more ineffective. So car builders began replacing the tillers with ship-inspired helms. The steering wheels used in cars were simpler and smaller than their nautical counterparts, and first became noticed during the Paris-Rouen race. It was then when a Panhard driven by Alfred Vacheron was first recorded in the history books as using a steering wheel to turn.
From that point forward, the technology became the car's trusted companion. Its most common shape is that of a circle, and it has remained unchanged for more than a century now. And that's despite the efforts of some, including Tesla in more recent times, to reinvent the wheel, change its round shape, and call it a yoke.
Some things did change, though, over the years, and that includes the role the element serves. Now it's no longer a simple helm for the car, but has become a command center for the entire car and its systems. But let's take things one step at a time.
For a very long time, the steering wheel was nothing more than a wooden circle fitted in front of the driver to allow control over the directional movement of the vehicle. It had and it served no other purpose. And the way it worked was crude too, as the procedure was done mechanically: the driver pulled the round gizmo to the left or right, while the wheels that touched the ground opposed that on account of the friction with the surface below. That made steering a difficult task at times, especially when the car was stationary.
Experiments with what was to become the precursor of power steering began in the 1920s. Francis W. Davis, an engineer with the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, ended up inventing the first such system as he was trying to make the life of truck drivers a little easier.
Coincidentally or not, it was the same nautical industry that inspired the wheel that sparked the rise of power steering in cars. Davis created his tech by taking inspiration from the power steering system used in ships, only with hydraulics. Once he worked his way around several problems he encountered during the development process, he managed to fit his system into a Cadillac.
Between 1931 and 1943, Davis received patents for five different inventions that are part of the power steering system. His invention was acknowledged by GM, which struck a deal with Davis to have the system fitted into further Cadillac models. But in 1934, due to the economic crisis, the contract was scrapped.
And then the war broke out, but contrary to what you'd expect, the development of power steering was not scrapped, but pushed into overdrive. The driving force for upcoming breakthroughs was, of course, the military, which not only wanted, but badly needed easy controllable war machines.
The Bendix-Davis systems first saw action on the battlefield in 1940, after being fitted into Chevrolet armored vehicles built for the British Army. By the end of the war, over 10,000 such machines were roaming the battlefields.
Chrysler began developing its own power steering after the war, but not from scratch. The company based its designs on Davis' expired patents, and the first home-brewed device was featured on the Imperial. The tech would come to be known as Hydraguide.
Since the Davis era, a number of other types of power steering systems have been developed. Depending on what is used to power the steering wheel, the systems can be hydraulic, as Davis' was, electro-hydraulic, electric, and so on. Some manufacturers, like Citroen and AM General, patented their own technologies (DIRAVI and Servotronic, respectively). And we've all gotten so used to the tech that today non-power-assisted vehicles are almost nonexistent.
For a very long time, power steering was the only major change made to the wheel since its invention. Then came the airbag in the 1970s, when GM started offering the option as a built-in feature, at first in government-purchased automobiles. Then, nothing notable happened for decades, until the jumps in apparently unrelated fields led to the birth of the steering wheel as a control center.
Besides controlling the direction of the car, the only other role given to the steering wheel has been for decades that of a support platform for the horn activation switch (and even that only sporadically). It was only in 1960 that some carmakers began fitting operating switches on the cruise control onto the wheel. And that's about all that happened in this respect for the steering wheel over the next three decades. Then, in the early 1990s, advancements in infotainment technology and in-car gadgetry really took off.
Obviously, their attention turned to the steering wheel, roughly the single in-car component which satisfied both needs. As a result, steering wheels began their transformation from rudders to control centers. They grew in size, as more space was required to accommodate the controls and wires which go with them. They exploded in terms of various looks, as the many needs of the engineers and designers dictated the shape.
In our day and age, the steering wheel is still very much around. Tesla's yoke and other futuristic designs will probably never catch on, but another major danger lurks ahead: autonomous vehicles.
These self-driving cars are already around, but none of them has yet removed the wheel from the equation. That's because all of these cars and the laws that govern them require human oversight and intervention in moving vehicles. But there are plans to make fully autonomous cars independent, and some vehicles are already being drawn up with no steering wheel, or at least with one that can retract and disappear from sight.
If and when that'll truly happen is anyone's guess.